Stay Connected with Family and Loved Ones After a Disaster
With so many choices these days in phone service, it quickly becomes a challenge to figure out what the best plan might be, let alone what to do if the power goes out. Here's a rundown of how different phone systems are affected, and what you can do to stay connected to the people who mean the most to you.
Standard or "hardwired" phones
Standard telephone service is one of our hardiest and most reliable communication systems. Even with an estimated 25 to 33% of families switching to cell service only, most home phones are still part of a hardwired system. The advantage this gives callers during a disaster is that the system most likely isn't damaged; it's simply overloaded and goes down. The standard phone system can only accommodate 10% of all callers at the same time. You may remember hearing an "All circuits are busy, please try your call again later" message on Mother's Days or other popular holidays.
With a hardwire system, the antidote is time. Simply waiting three to five hours after a disaster before making a call gives the system time to recover, and increases your chance of getting through to the ones you love.
The advantage of a hardwire system during a winter storm is that even if you lose electricity, chances are your phone will still work. But cordless phones rely on electricity, so keeping a simple corded phone in your emergency kit is the best way to stay connected during a power outage.
After a disaster, long distance calls have a better chance of getting through than do local calls. That's why a long-distance, out-of-area contact is recommended as part of your disaster plan. Instead of relying on local phone lines, family members check in with each other through their pre-designated, out-of-area contact. You've created a personal relay system to exchange messages.
Many people have opted for VOIP (voice over internet protocol) service, sometimes referred to as digital voice, or digital phone service. Digital home service is often packaged with your cable or internet service. Clarity and reliability rival the hardwire system, and often at lesser cost because long distance rates don't apply. The main disadvantage of a digital phone system is during a power outage. When power goes out, neither cordless phones nor digital phone service will work. Plugging a corded phone into the wall jack won't make any difference, because you're no longer part of the hardwired system. Those who opt for digital service often maintain cell phone service, too. This can act as a back-up during a disaster, provided you have a way to re-charge cell phone batteries.
Historically, cell service has been a bit unpredictable during a disaster. When it stays up, it's terrific, but if it goes out, there's little you can do until cell towers and relay systems are repaired. There is a bit of good news, though. Text messaging from your cell phone has proven reliable after major disasters. The reason: it uses a different part of the cell system. When you talk person-to-person by cell phone, you have to have a closed circuit for the two of you to hear each other. But a text message goes through in a burst, and will often get through when a voice call won't. So, if staying in touch is paramount, learning to text from your cell phone is a handy skill, especially during a disaster! And think ahead of time how you'd recharge your cell phone battery when power goes out. A car charger, solar, hand-cranked or battery-powered chargers are all good options.
The bottom line: after a disaster, you'll want to stay in touch with those you love. Technology can help. Knowing how it all works and talking with family members ahead of time is the key.